Three Things I Look For When Hiring Crew Members

As the scope of your projects grow, so will your team, and it’s important to surround yourself with the best possible team to ensure the best possible end product. But how do you go about choosing the right people?

The concept for today’s article comes from a recent discussion I had with a colleague I had hired for a recent project. I’ll be vague about their role and the particular project as to not reveal their identity since it is safe to say that hiring this person has led to no end of grief. Not that they are bad at their job. In fact, they are highly accomplished and terrific at what they do. Not that they are a bad person. In fact, we were (and are) friends for a long time before we chose to work together. But now that we’ve finally gotten to connect on a project, I find myself wishing that I had made another choice. Why? Well going into that might reveal too many details about their identity. But, let’s just say it wasn’t a great fit and the result is that having them on board has made things more difficult, while not providing as much benefit to the project as I had anticipated. It’s not their fault. It’s my fault for not being able to see the potential issues sooner. Still, it’s been a learning experience for me. And it led me today to write this article to try and help you to not make some of the mistakes in team building that I’ve made along the way.

So, with that said, let’s get into some of the things I look for when hiring a crew on a film or photography project.

Are They Qualified?

This one seems pretty self explanatory. If you are hiring someone, presumably you are hiring them to do a job. Technically speaking, can they do that job? Onto the next question.

Do They Add Value To The Project?

This one can also be broken down into a mathematical equation, but is somewhat more complicated than the previous one. An adequate crew member may be technically capable of performing a given job, but a great crew member adds value to the project. A simple example would be a cinematographer looking to hire a gaffer. If someone has ascended to the role of cinematographer, it is generally the result of them having worked their way up. So, they should know a thing or two about lighting and be perfectly capable of lighting the set themselves. Yet, they hire gaffers to focus on the movie’s illumination for two reasons. One, the gaffer will be the one practically implementing the cinematographer’s vision. But, two, an experienced gaffer can make suggestions that can improve on that vision, even if it takes the original idea in an unexpected direction. The cinematographer is still higher in the pecking order. But having a gaffer who brings their own extensive experience and taste can add to the mix and make the end product better than had that gaffer simply showed up on set to move lights on command.

A similar example would be a photo assistant. I am the first to admit that I am a control freak. I have spent decades personally lighting my own sets in a very specific way. So, I am never going to be one of those photographers who hire assistants to do their lighting for them and simply show up with the camera to take the shots once the complex lighting is complete. I’m not built that way. It’s far more likely that my assistants will fall asleep in the grip truck at some point because I’ve given them a very specific plan on how I want the lights setup and, once complete, there is little else for them to do until moving onto the next setup.

Yet, no matter how experienced I might be, I still make a point of hiring assistants with as much, if not more, experience than myself because they are likely to know a thing or two that I don’t. As one of my mentors is fond of pointing out, your assistant works for multiple photographer’s shoots. Whereas, you, as a photographer, only work on your shoots. They not only work with you. They work with several photographers with many different styles. So, over the course of the year, it’s likely that they spend a lot more time on set than you do. As such, they will have seen even more lighting scenarios than you due to simple mathematics. So, even if you don’t often run into a scenario that you don’t know how to address personally, having an experienced assistant there to fill in unexpected gaps in knowledge or even simply to bounce ideas off of can strengthen the final result.

True, working with someone with strong ideas can challenge our own feelings of self-worth and confidence. There’s a reason why people hire “yes” men to provide a constant stream of reassurance. But, bringing on a crew member not afraid to share ideas, and with the experience to back up their assertions, can actually lead to a collaborative environment where the end product is better than you could have ever imagined.

Do I Like Them as Human Beings?

While this is the least technical qualification a crew member can possess, it is, by far, in my humble opinion, the most important thing I look for in a crew member.

Now, before you think that I just start bringing in my friends regardless of qualifications, let me clarify. As mentioned in the first two sections, a crew member’s technical qualifications can be key to a successful project. But, even if you are using a less experienced assistant, if you’ve done your own homework and built up your own technical knowledge over the years, there are very few situations that, between the two of you, you won’t be able to find an adequate solution for. My assistant can teach me a thing or two. I can teach them a thing or two. And, together, we can probably figure it out.

I cannot, however, teach someone not to be an a-hole.

If someone is just not a good person to be around, if they don’t understand set etiquette, if they don’t respect their coworkers, it doesn’t much matter how good they are at their job. Not just for my own personal comfort, but for the rest of the team as well. Team morale and camaraderie are essential in running an efficient and effective set. If you have a crew member whose personality is not a fit for the rest of the group, it can bring down the entire team’s performance, regardless of that person’s individual technical merit.

The same thing applies with regards to clients. When a client hires me, they are also hiring my crew. They are trusting me to bring the best talent to their project and to produce a positive working environment. As such, every single person I hire for a project is an extension and reflection of me. If I bring on someone with a bad personality, that personality is unlikely to only be confined to their co-workers. The client on set will likely interact with this person too. And, if that interaction is unpleasant, it’s almost as if the client has had a bad interaction with me personally. Even if I’m on the other side of the room.

So, absolutely essential to me when hiring crew, is to make sure that every single one of them is a positive person. Much like I want a crew member who adds value with their skill set, I want each crew member to contribute to a positive and collaborative working environment on set. Their presence should be a net positive for morale. Selfishly, this makes my job easier as a leader. But, practically, hiring the right personalities that lead to a happier set rather than a divisive one, can make for a more effective shoot and better end product for my clients. Often the key to repeat business is the client’s experience working with you, regardless of how good or bad the end product ended up being. If you have someone on your team that leaves the client with a bad taste in their mouth, then having them around may actually be losing you business. 

 I’ve been assembling crews now for three decades. And I haven’t always gotten it right. There was that PA and aspiring director who thought it their job to pull my actors aside and give them added direction between takes. There was that photo assistant who I hired for a very high profile ad campaign that spent the bulk of the day handing out their own personal photography business cards to my client executives in the greenroom, suggesting my clients opt for them next time. Sometimes timing or money mean you have to take a chance on a potential team member and, every now and then, it doesn’t work out.

But in the vast majority of cases, I’ve been blessed to work with some of the most talented support crews in the entire world. Crew members that have always brought the right attitude to set to ensure that everyone has a pleasant experience. Crew members that have been there for me, either to fill in a gap in my own knowledge, or to suggest new ideas that have made my project better. A crew member is more than an employee. They are team members. And, as they say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Paying attention to forming a chain of links that all move your project in a positive direction could be the key separator between success and failure.


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